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USA's 'The Sinner' Has Perp, Searches for Motive
August 1, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Maybe the biggest surprise about USA’s dark new series The Sinner is that it isn’t based on a story from Scandinavia. Instead, it’s based on a story from Germany.

Close enough.

Jessica Biel (top) stars in The Sinner, which launches Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, as a seemingly ordinary if slightly compulsive and distracted young woman who stabs an apparent stranger to death on a placid lakeside beach.

That isn’t a spoiler. That’s the premise of the show, whose quest is to find out why Biel’s Cora Tannetti really did it.

She says she doesn’t know. Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, right), who is assigned to what looks like an open-and-shut case, figures someone must.

So he will be spending the eight episodes of this closed-end summer series digging through Cora’s murky past in hopes of unearthing some kind of explanation.

As he and his partner Dan Leroy (Dohn Norwood) note in their first conversation with the somewhat dazed Cora, most women who go to the beach with their husband and young son don’t stab a stranger to death for no reason.

Based on a popular novel by Petra Hammesfahr, The Sinner obviously pokes around into the psychology of why someone would.

Accordingly, the first episode already starts giving us the mandatory flashbacks to Cora’s childhood, in which a seemingly cold and distant mother blames the young child for the fact that her newly born baby sister is seriously ill.

You took up all my strength and energy, her mother tells Cora, so I had none left for your sister Phoebe.

It’s the kind of conversation a kid remembers.

We also start with just a skeletal portrait of Cora’s husband Mason (Christopher Abbott), who seems shocked almost to silence by his wife’s sudden violent outburst.

Up to that point we’ve seen that she’s not as excited about sex as he is, and that she cleans and tidies almost to the point of OCD.

She also seems to be devoted to their son. At the beach, she thoughtfully cuts him a slice of pear just before she uses the paring knife to slice up the guy on the next blanket.

Biel nicely conveys the essence of Cora, though that’s sometimes tough to watch. We have a vague sense there must a reason for her action, but clues come slowly enough that she isn’t immediately a sympathetic character. More like a mysterious one.

Ambrose is often guarded in his own way, and we find out early that he has things he needs to guard.

The Sinner wouldn’t be called fast-paced, which is another reason it has some of the ambiance of those dark Scandinavian adaptations.

It gives us enough, however, to become curious about the central question, and it promises that in eight weeks we will know whether there is an answer.

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